My Spicy Love Affair

Believe it or not, I was just eight years old when I first encountered “W”– my hot and spicy love. Our meeting brought tears to my eyes, shock and horror to my father, and great amusement to the rest of the family.

I was having dinner with my family at a Japanese restaurant. Grandpa was seated next to me, Dad sat directly opposite me, and W was near one of my uncles, casting coy glances at me while lounging in its lacquered dish.

“W”, shown on the right, next to a mound of seasoned dried fish flakes.

Oh, did I mention W is an “it”, not a “him”? W stands for Wasabi: that pale green Japanese horseradish paste with the sinus-zapping kick, served alongside sushi, sashimi, and other seafood dishes. Even the tiniest smear of W can send the sturdiest man or woman reeling. It delivers a sudden burn that’s hardly noticeable in the mouth, but sears one’s nasal passages with a volcano’s fury.

“W” in packet form. In this form, it’s processed and usually contains preservatives. The fresh stuff, while definitely superior, is harder to find.

Not being entirely familiar with Oriental cuisines, I mistook W for its easy-going, mild-mannered, similarly green-colored pal: Avocado. As I spied my relatives enjoying W’s company with their sushi, I decided it was my turn to make its acquaintance. A dab on my piece of shrimp sushi seemed to be sufficient introduction. But something about W– perhaps its sophisticated light shade of green– made me reach for another dab. And another. After all, I’d been spending this whole time thinking that W was the same as its laid-back buddy Avocado, whom I loved dearly (especially in a California Roll sushi).

My father, upon seeing me about to pop the piece of shrimp sushi in my mouth, tried to warn me of W’s true colors– but it was too late.

Dramatic re-enactment.

At that moment of my life, time slowed to a crawl (or perhaps my memories simply replay the scene in slow motion whenever I revisit it). The look of terror and resigned dread on Dad’s face, Grandpa’s surprised and bemused grin, W’s signature blazing punch rising right up my sinuses– they were all there and gone in the briefest of seconds, but to me, it felt like sitting on hot coals for a good few hours.

Fluid gushed from my eyes and nose, burning all the way out. I coughed up my piece of sushi, wanting nothing more than to get W as far away from me as possible. Minutes later, after several spoonfuls of plain rice, shared giggles with the family, and a glass of iced tea to soothe W’s sting, I was back to my regular smiling self.

After that night, I banished W from my life. Or so I thought.

During every family outing at a Japanese restaurant, W would be there, cozying up to my elder relatives over plates of salmon and tuna. When I gained an interest in learning to make sushi, W would be in every recipe book, winking at me from the lists of ingredients. “Give us another go,” it’d whisper longingly. “It’s not me; it’s you.”

Could that be true? I started paying closer attention to my relatives who had a happy relationship with W. Indeed, there were differences between their approach and mine. Compared to my heavy-handed manner at that first meeting with W, my relatives shared only the slightest of brushes, the lightest of kisses, with the enigmatic pale green paste.

And so it came to pass that at the age of thirteen and a half, I declared myself ready to venture into love with W again. This time, with all the maturity and restraint that an adolescent could muster, I placed a delicate dab of W– mild as a whisper– on a crab roll.

Again, time slowed to a crawl. I braced myself for the tears, the flaming plume rushing up my sinuses– and found myself falling. Not falling to the floor in a sputtering heap, nor falling onto the table with a watery nose. I fell upwards in exhilaration, to a plane of balance and bliss. Here was my crab roll, the succulent, tender seafood embraced by soft vinegared rice, elevated by W’s pungent horseradish flavor and aroma. There was just a brief moment of heat, deliciously sassy and flirtatious– nothing like the wallop I’d received in the nose as a child. I downed the crab roll and invited W to share another with me. W gladly obliged. Each piece of sushi on my plate tasted more thrilling, more exciting, than the last. I was sad to see the last one go, taking W with it; but my spirits were buoyed by the knowledge that our next romantic encounter was just another Japanese food outing away.

Contrary to how most Westerners apply W (wasabi), its proper placement in sushi is actually BETWEEN the fish layer and the rice layer– not on top of the fish.

From that day on, in all matters of sushi, sashimi, and other seafood dishes, W and I have been inseparable. We even share a beef or chicken dinner on the odd occasion. On days when lunch at the office consists of a takeaway box of sushi, I take the time to ensure each and every piece of fish gets a carefully measured, evenly distributed kiss from W– no matter how busy or rushed  I am. You can’t hurry love, after all.

I took away two things during this journey from W-hating childhood to W-adoring adolescence:

1. Don’t be afraid to love again if you’ve been burned before.

2. Wasabi is incredibly strong stuff. Unless you’re a huge fan of hot and spicy, use it sparingly.

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